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First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Layfayette, Indiana, December 19, 1976

POSTMARK:  Belize

By COLLEEN McGUIRE

The typical traveler in Central America is either going up the Pan American Highway towards the States or headed down towards South America. Thus, everyone passes through the same line of countries.

A look at the map shows that Belize — formerly British Honduras — is slightly off the circuit. So to be different, I ventured into that tiny country and into a minor case of culture shock.

The vast differences between Belize and the other Latin countries are so incredibly striking that for several days I was in a constant state of amazement.  I had no idea that Belize was predominantly populated by Negroes. Actually they’re referred to as Caribs.

At first I felt like I was on the south side of Chicago. I arrived very late at night and contrary to sleepy Guatemala, the streets were filled with people cruising around despite the late hour. The blacks dress loud. They don’t just walk down the street, but tend to saunter with style.

As I began to talk with people, Chicago vanished from my mind. These blacks speak an English dialect called Creole. Their accent is British and many words are unfamiliar. When they spoke pure Creole, I had no idea what they are saying. “Hey, mon” is how they greet each other with a smooth slap of the palm. My long skirt was referred to as a frock. A young man called to me, “Hey mama, stop your eyes” meaning he wanted me to come talk to him.

Their place names are creative. I turned down a road called So Why? Street. I saw a clothing store called My Ting — in Creole, the “h” is abandoned in “th” words.

All over Belize City one hears music. It’s loud and lively. And where there’s music, there are people freely moving to its beat. At Mom’s, a popular hang-out, an old black woman in a Salvation Army suit was shaking and shouting the gospel. A spirited crowd accompanied her words by clapping and chanting to her rhythm.

Belize is a country with fewer residents than the city of Indianapolis. The people are extremely nationalistic and proud of their origins. I was fortunate to be in their country on their National Day. So I hitched a ride out to the “bush,” as the countryside is called, to partake in the festivities.

On Nov. 19, 1823, the natives of the West Indian island of St. Vincent’s fled the Spaniards, coming to Stann Creek in Southern Belize by boat. For 50 years the Caribs have been celebrating this liberating event. As I arrived in the small coastal village, a parade of school children was slowly dancing down the main street. They were singing in the Carib language and some carried banners saying in Creole, “We work together” and “Love one another.”

The Belize children have to be the most uninhibited group of kids I’ve come across. They’ll be strolling along and suddenly break into a cartwheel or a series of aerial flips.

One of the highlights of the Stann Creek festivities are the drums. The children perked up at the familiar noise. We moved en masse to where three black men were beating the instruments. The drums are tall, like congos. The beat is mesmerizing. Little boys of five or six started swaying to the vibrations. Every bone in their bodies was moving in perfect harmony to the rhythm. Their dancing to the drums is called the “punta” in Creole.

The crowd was urging me to join in. Believe it or, not, I accepted their offer. The Caribs were overjoyed. These people adore anyone who freely lets loose with them.

Compared to the young boys, I knew my “punta” attempts were pitiful. But it didn’t matter in the least. The main point was just having a good time. The drums, the punta, the swinging and swaying were to continue throughout the night.

I dropped off early about 11 p.m. and went to sleep on the beach. At 5 a.m. I was awakened by the noise of people. The day was Nov. 19 and at this predawn hour everyone had come down to the Caribbean Sea. There were five dug-out canoes in the distant waters approaching the shore. The event was the reenactment of the Carib ancestors arriving at Belize from St. Vincent’s Island. About an hour later the canoes reached land to the cheers of the crowd. The entire procession then marched into town.

The children performed again. Adults gave speeches. A queen was crowned. The next event consisted of a woman’s basketball game. The game was a little rough since the baskets had no backboards for rebounding and the court was gravel, but the spectators were as enthusiastic as Hoosier basketball fans.

Because everyone was tired from staying up the previous night, the festivities closed early on Nov. 19 and people started going home by whatever means possible.

I caught a ride in the back of a cement truck going to Belize City. The ride lasted about four and a half hours. The driver made several stops.

At the first stop, he climbed out of the cab with a machete in his hand and cut a bunch of plantanos growing wild on a tree. Plantanos look like bananas except they are bigger, greener and harder. They are fried.  Another stop was at a grapefruit grove. I stood on the cab and plucked several of die newly ripe fruit.  As we passed over a bridge, the driver made a, third stop. It was so hot and humid in Belize that we took a fast dip in the deep creek below.

A fourth stop was to let off another rider, a British soldier. There are 1,000 British soldiers in Belize. Britian granted Belize independence last year, but still maintains a military presence. This is because Guatemala doesn’t recognize Belize and wants to take over the country to gain a sea port on the Atlantic. Belize has no army so Britian supplies her defense.

I mention the political point because it is so important to the Belizens. A tourist can’t avoid discussing the Guatemalan affair when speaking to the people.

After attending the National Day festivities and being among the people, I’m convinced that Belize could never, ever be incorporated into Guatemala. The two countries are distinctly different.

Belize is a fascinating country, perhaps partially because it is so incongruous in Latin America. As one old black street vendor said, “We is a unique people.”

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